This is the first post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.
“A Bike, A Bike, My Free-State for a Bike!”
The utility of any invention is most tested when it is put to war, and the bicycle is no exception. Like any invention, mankind was quick to press the bicycle into making war. After all, here was a vehicle that gave a man the mobility of a horse, but for only the fraction of the cost, fodder and water. Never mind the steam train, the bicycle was the true Horse of Steel.
The first alleged use of the bicycle under fire came during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when messengers rode high-wheeler bicycles, carrying dispatches from headquarters to troops and back. But the new technology was not sufficient to keep Emperor Napoleon III from being personally captured in battle, losing his army, his war and his throne. And the nascent French bicycle industry, primarily based at the heart of the fighting in the northeast province of Alsace-Lorraine, was practically destroyed by the war. Prior to the war, France had been the technological leader in the bicycle industry. After the war, the British bicycle industry gained ground, led by Birmingham Small Arms, aka BSA, and began selling bikes around the world.
BSA bicycles and tricycles, alongside namesake rifles and pistols, were exported to the other BSA- British South Africa. At the height of the British Empire, the independent republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State (in what is now northeastern South Africa) were wealthy thorns in the side of British hegemony. The two states had been founded by Dutch farmers, or Boers, who had fled the first British invasion of southern Africa almost a century prior during the Napoleonic wars. The Dutch Boers were every bit as freedom-loving as their American cousins, and were in no small part dissatisfied with the British abolition of slavery. When first gold and then diamonds were discovered in the new, independent Boer states, tensions rose as British immigrants began to flood into the Boer gold country. When war broke out in 1899, the British army in South Africa was at least four times bigger than what the Boers could field. Recognizing that they could not win by numbers, the Boers turned to tactics. But like their freedom-loving, bigoted Confederate cousins in America, they were doomed to fail in a total war against an industrialized foe.
It was in the lead up to hostilities that Boer Captain Daniel Theron (a distant uncle of actress Charlize Theron) first proposed a bicycle corps. While the British had the imperial resources to ship horses by the hundreds of thousands to BSA, and subsequently ride them to death by the tens of thousands, Captain Theron recognized that the Boers did not have such resources, and that horses must be saved for combat. Boer cycling champion JP Jooste accompanied Theron on a trip to to the capitol of Pretoria to pitch their idea, and pointed out in a briefing to a general that, A horse must sleep and eat, while a bicycle needs only oil and a pump before it is ready for action. To which the general replied that a bicycle neither kicks nor bites, to boot. Jooste was challenged to beat a man on horseback from Praetoria to Crocodile Ridge, a distance of 75km, and did so, setting the ground for Theron’s decidedly unconventional kommandos.
Theron’s efforts were initially met with widespread, conservative skepticism. The burghers, or land-owning white citizens, had been raised on horseback, and were reluctant to allow new-fangled contraptions to take the place of traditional horses. They viewed the cyclists as geeky cowards, trying to avoid combat. Theron at first was limited to organizing a messenger brigade, the Vrystaatse Rapportrijders, or “Free State Couriers.” But, “as soon as the burghers saw that the despatch riders could not be stopped by rivers, heavy roads, hostile patrols, or even enemy bullets, they gained a new respect for the corps.”
After the free riders proved that the bicycle was both reliable and cheap, Theron was able to establish the TVK, or Theron se Verkenningskorps (Therons Reconnaissance Corps). Theron trained an elite group of a hundred scouts on bicycles, many of which were probably riding (BSA) Birmingham Small Arms bikes from (BSA) British South Africa. Scouts on bikes were able to infiltrate behind British lines and report back without being detected. Theron solved the thorny problem of frequent punctures by fashioning tire strips from rawhide leather, a problem that led British soldiers to discard their bicycles by the hundreds. The riding conditions would have challenged 21st Century mountain bikers: The veldt itself is covered with a thinly growing thorny scrub, just ridable for bicycles, but prevalent of punctures to all but the stoutest tyres. The roads and tracks are quite practicable, but very bumpy, and abounding in sandy patches where sideslips are the rule and riding is difficult, and are intersected with watercourses over which the wheels bump heavily. Nevertheless, with strong machines and careful riding, the bicycle is a most useful method of progression, though across country the horse has undoubtedly the advantage.
While the horse and rider may have had an advantage in ideal terrain, they were also conspicuous, hungry and thirsty. A man on horseback could see for miles on the treeless veldt, and also be seen. Being lower to the ground, cyclists were able to travel long distance unobserved across arid land, and were not nearly as thirsty in the process. In fact, one of Theron’s principal targets of surveillance were the watering holes and paddocks that British troops depended upon to water and feed their horses. Theron’s tactics became so disruptive that a price was placed on his head by the British high command of a thousand pounds Sterling for capture, dead or alive, the equivalent of nearly a million pounds in 2016.
Recognizing the technological advantage of the bicycle, the British soon raised their own “Cape Cyclin
g Corps,” which was likewise tasked with surveillance and dispatches. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, who later became the founder of the Boy Scouts, (an elite paramilitary organization, in the immortal words of Red Dawns Colonel Bella), understood the importance of the bicycle, and traveled with his own folding bike. Bicycle messengers were assigned to transport carrier pigeons, as the birds preferred bicycles to horses. And a New Zealander bicycle squad even chased down and captured a contingent of Boers on horseback (presumably the horses were thirsty and hungry).
British troops traveling by train were subject to ambush and booby trap, creating a need to patrol the tracks. Australian forces deployed to BSA built their own four-wheeled, eight-seat bicycle for just such a purpose by bolting together several bike frames and replacing the pneumatic tires with railroad wheels. As with any bicycle, it allowed them to travel quietly and closer to the ground, allowing them to be on the lookout for covert Boer kommandos and demolition charges. The eight-man squad could dismount more quickly from their bicycle than they could from a locomotive, and in a pinch they could also tow a trailer equipped with a Maxim machine gun. Their “war cycle” could also accommodate a stretcher between the bike frames for carrying the wounded back home.
The occupying British army understood the capacity for bicycles to be deployed in asymmetric warfare; a mandatory licensing program was initiated, and lights were required at night: “No person may ride or have in his or her possession a bicycle, tricycle, or automobile, unless the machine has been duly registered at the Commandant’s Office. When a machine is registered, a numbered metal plate will be issued and must be attached to the machine in a conspicuous place. Cyclists passing a Guard or Sentry will do so at a pace of not more than 6 miles an hour and will dismount if ordered to do so. A lamp will be carried on any machine when ridden at night between sunset and sunrise.”
Sadly, Captain Theron’s bicycle did not prove faster than a speeding shell. While scouting on his own in the latter days of the way, he reached the top of a kopfe, or small hill, only to find seven mounted British soldiers on the other side. He quickly opened fire with his rifle, killing four outright, and wounding the other three. Unfortunately, the artillery battery that the troops had been accompanying heard his shots, and saturated the hilltop with fire. We do not know his dying words, but we can only hope that they were thus,
“You can have my bike when you pry it
from my cold, dead hands.”